Caribbean Matters: Holiday eats and musical treats with sazón, spice, and everything nice

As a kid, I think the first song I ever heard that mentioned West Indian food was Harry Belafonte singing “Jamaica Farewell,” written by Brooklyn-born Irving Burgie, known professionally as Lord Burgess, and recorded by Belafonte in 1956. 

The lyrics include this verse:

Down at the market you can hear

Ladies cry out while on their heads they bear

Ackee rice, saltfish are nice

And the rum is fine any time of year

I was first introduced to West Indian food when I was growing up by our Jamaican next-door neighbors in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. In case you have never had saltfish, here’s a humorous introduction to it, courtesy of three West Indian women from different nations—Bernice of Guyana, Donna of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Eustacia of Trinidad—in a competitive taste test of each other’s cooking.

The first mom up in the video, Bernice, mentions the song “Saltfish” by the world-famous Calypsonian, The Mighty Sparrow. His website offers a biography.

Slinger Francisco, The Mighty Sparrow, was born on July 9, 1935 in Grand Roy, Grenada and migrated to Trinidad with his family when he was one year old.

At 20, Mighty Sparrow arose as the top Calypsonian with his record-breaking hit, “Jean and Dinah.” In 1958 Sparrow became the only calypsonian to earn a triple win, in the same year, in the Road March Competition. The calypsos included “P.A.Y.E. (Pay As You Earn),” a song that allowed the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago to comprehend the significance of paying taxes, “Russian Satellite,” and “Theresa,” in which he sang in other languages.

During the course of his career, he continued to release popular and influential albums with rabble-rousing lyrics and unwavering social commentary. He eventually became a cross-genre stylist, belting rock, crooning ballads, and mastering funk, soca, Christmas favorites, spirituals, and African hybrids. No other calypsonian in history has had such broad appeal across musical categories.

Here’s the Mighty Sparrow song Bernice paid homage to, “Saltfish.”

Like many calypso tunes, there are double meanings to the lyrics.  You’ll figure it out. 

From the lyrics

Saltfish stew is what I like
So doo-doo, give me day and night
I like you food, so don’t find me rude
My favorite, I sure every man in here already eat it

Nothing in the world sweeter than
English, colloquial, Bajans
It’s sweeter than meat
When you want to eat

All saltfish sweet

When you are learning to cook Cuban, Puerto Rican, or Dominican food, a basic foundation for much of it is “sofrito,” which is the subject of one of Afro-Cuban Latin-jazz great Mongo Santamaria’s most famous tunes, “Sofrito,” which he recorded in 1976.

Mongo Santamaría (1917–2003) was a Cuban American jazz percussionist.

Ramón “Mongo” Santamaría Rodríguez was born in Havana, Cuba, in a family that valued music and their African heritage. At a young age, Santamaría picked up the violin, but the popularity and familial affinity for rumba music led him to a musical career in percussion. Santamaría dropped out of middle school and taught himself maracas, bongos, conga, and timbales. In 1937, alongside Septeto Beloña and the house band, he began performing at the renowned Tropicana Club in Havana.

In 1948, Santamaría traveled to Mexico City to tour with Armando Peraza’s dance troupe. Two years later, Peraza and Santamaría moved to New York City, where they brought Afro-Cuban rhythms to jazz and pop music genres.

While in New York, Santamaría and trumpeter Gilberto Valdés formed the city’s first charanga band, the Black Cuban Diamond. Santamaría worked with famed bandleader Peréz Prado and later, he and Tito Puente entertained audiences with their percussion battles during the height of the mambo in the 1950s. He gained even more popularity working with Cal Tjader in the late 1950s.

Here’s Mongo’s “Sofrito,” which will have you dancing around the kitchen.

So after listening to “Sofrito,” perhaps you’d like to learn to make it. There are a ton of Caribbean-Latino cooking channels on YouTube, chock full of recipes and how-tos.

You can always buy premade sofrito in many supermarkets. However, it’s always good to learn how to make your own. I liked this video from Chef Tito’s Workshop.

For those readers looking for their next cookbook, Von Diaza’s Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South is a delightful one to add to your collection.

When her family moved from Puerto Rico to Atlanta, Von Diaz traded plantains, roast pork, and malta for grits, fried chicken, and sweet tea. Brimming with humor and nostalgia, Coconuts and Collards is a reci­pe-packed memoir of growing up Latina in the Deep South.  
The stories center on the women in Diaz’s family who have used food to nour­ish and care for one another. When her mother—newly single and with two young daughters—took a second job to make ends meet, Diaz taught herself to cook, preparing meals for her sister after school, feeding her mother when she came home late from work. During summer visits to Puerto Rico, her grandmother guided her rediscovery of the island’s flavors and showed her traditional cooking techniques. Years later the island called her back to its warm and tropical em­brace to be comforted by its familiar flavors.  
Inspired by her grandmother’s 1962 copy of Cocina Criolla—the Puerto Rican equiv­alent of the Joy of Cooking—Coconuts and Collards celebrates traditional recipes while fusing them with Diaz’s own family history and a contemporary Southern flair. Diaz discovers the connections between the food she grew up eating in Atlanta and the African and indigenous influences in so many Puerto Rican dishes. The funche recipe is grits kicked up with coconut milk. White beans make the catfish corn chowder creamy and give it a Spanish feel. The pinchos de pollo—chicken skewers—feature guava BBQ sauce, which doubles as the sauce for adobo-coated ribs. The pastelón is shepherd’s pie . . . with sweet plantains. And the quingombo recipe would be recognized as stewed okra in any Southern kitchen, even if it is laced with warm and aromatic sofrito.  

There is, of course, plenty of Puerto Rican music to go along with these recipes. One of the world’s most famous Puerto Rican bands, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, has been on tour celebrating their 60th anniversary this year. One of their most well-known songs about Puerto Rican food is “El Menú.” 

RELATED: Giving thanks for food, and Chef José Andrés in Puerto Rico 

Some background on the group’s history, from All About Jazz:

El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, commonly known as El Gran Combo, is a Puerto Rican Salsa music orchestra. It is Puerto Rico’s most successful musical group, and one of Salsa’s most famous recording and performing artists across Latin America.

Since many of the genre’s legendary singers have been members of the orchestra, the band has been given the moniker La Universidad de la Salsa (The University of Salsa). El Gran Combo was founded by Rafael Ithier in May of 1962. Ithier is still, in 2010, the orchestra’s pianist and musical director.

Guillermo Rivera wrote about El Gran Combo’s “El Menú” for Georgia State University’s student newspaper, The Signal:

The song by the famed Puerto Rican salsa group mentions their love for different foods, such as rice and beans, fried plantains and fish with a squeeze of lemon. “El Menú” invokes the feelings someone gets from being in a Hispanic mom’s kitchen.

“It reminds me of being around my parents as a little kid or going to the supermarket to buy food to cook that night,” Arly Molina, a student at Georgia State, said.

Odes to food can also be used to describe a culture. A love for food can indirectly highlight parts of a major culture and remind people of their childhood. “El Menú” does this specifically with Hispanic culture and heritage.

“I’ve never met someone who doesn’t like some type of Hispanic food,” Molina said. “So, yeah, the song does make me proud of my heritage because it has some flavor, and I think that’s what being Hispanic is all about.”

Enjoy the studio recording of “El Menú.”

Lyrics in Spanish and English here.

On Caribbean menus, rice is a staple, like potatoes are in most U.S. homes. For the holiday, instead of white rice and gravy—which I grew up with in my Black family—I am making “arroz con gandules” (rice with pigeon peas) as part of my Puerto Rican husband’s traditions.

RELATED: Black Music Sunday: A musical meal brings a soulful start to the holiday season

Here’s one easy how-to from Mari’s Cooking channel on YouTube.

It’s time for me to head back into the kitchen to finish up my cooking, but join me in the comments to post your favorite Caribbean recipes and music, and for the weekly Caribbean News Roundup.

Have a tasty holiday!

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